Moab beekeeper Ben Moline examines a frame of bees from his colonies that were part of the Moab local queen-rearing project last spring. The goal of the effort was to supply Moab beekeepers with locally adapted honeybee stock that can survive without the medicinal treatments that are common in beekeeping today. [Photo courtesy of Jerry Shue]

One might think bees have special status in the Beehive State, but Utah’s pollinator problems mirror the rest of the country’s. By geographic luck, Grand County’s population has avoided some of the worst problems, and local apiarists say they are determined to keep it that way.

To date, the county has 48 beekeepers with about 120 colonies among them. Grand County Bee Inspector Jerry Shue made about 70 calls to beekeepers, either to assist with or inspect their hives, and he said he is cautiously optimistic about what he has seen.

Unlike most beekeepers in most places, beekeepers in Grand County don’t have to chemically treat their colonies for mites. Also, as far as Shue is able to determine, the county is free of American foulbrood, a devastating disease that is caused by bacteria and spread by infected bees and equipment.

“Nobody here has any incidence of it, period. That’s a real plus,” he told the Grand County Council during his annual report on Tuesday, Oct. 4. “Stories like that are scarce, but are all over the country. Part of it is relieving the bees of the stress of the treatments that kill the mites.”

“I haven’t found any beekeeping community as remote as we are,” Shue added. “And our bees are surviving to a greater extent than almost anywhere.”

The beekeeping community’s successes this year included efforts to breed and distribute 35 queens from healthy local stock to local beekeepers at no cost to help replenish their hives.

Wildlife biologist Pam Riddle has been keeping bees for four years, and has experienced a similar survival pattern to many beekeepers of late, she said. When she purchases from a breeder and receives her box of bees from another part of the country – usually the South – she said they are generally in fragile health, prone to disease and don’t last more than a year.

Riddle received two of the locally bred queens, and she said she is glad to see one of her locally populated colonies thrive, though it’s still too small to produce honey.

She’s willing to be patient, though; the purpose of the breeding program is to build up local stock so the local environment is less exposed to imported bees and the afflictions they struggle with in other parts of the state and the country.

“Bees are livestock,” Riddle said. “If you think about it from that perspective, you’re constantly trying to improve the genetics of your livestock.”

Another success has been the popularity of pollinator garden installations throughout the community. A local group of conservation enthusiasts specializing in bees and native landscapes called Bee Inspired Gardens (BIG) has installed eight gardens since 2013, in partnership with stakeholders on private and public properties throughout Moab.

Last week, local thrift store and resource conservation nonprofit WabiSabi granted $750 to Bee Inspired Gardens to install one of the organization’s newest pollinator community gardens at Grand County Middle School. Students in the eighth-grade environmental science class will be designing and planting the water-wise, multi-use space on a small plot right outside their classroom window.

On Tuesday, Oct. 18, pollinator landscape and bee experts visited the students in class to start the design process.

“I like the idea of it, and we have a really good area that has irrigation already,” said eighth-grade biology teacher Kelly Wilson, who spearheaded the project for her environmental science class. “All we need money for is the plants. The kids are benefiting from it; they get to design it, and they’re learning about native plant species and native insects. Then we’ll have this nice area at the school that’s multipurpose and can be a study area, too.”

Last spring, she and her biology class planted a pollinator garden at the Old Spanish Trail Arena in partnership with BIG and the Grand County Water Conservancy District. That garden is thriving, said Riddle, who spearheaded that project.

“The Moab BIG is a great project,” Riddle said. “Pollinator awareness is really needed. As people become aware about pollinators, they become more aware of the ecology around them.”

In order to preserve the positive situation for pollinators in this region, Grand County passed an ordinance last year prohibiting beekeepers from bringing migratory bees into the county south of Interstate 70.

Such prohibitions are rare across the country, and this year’s Utah legislative session brought a bill seeking to make such ordinances illegal.

It didn’t pass, but the right to preserve local bee health through local ordinances will likely have to be defended again in the future, Shue told the county council. Such ordinances make bee migration more complicated, which can ultimately add costs to overall food production.

Pollinator losses have led to alarming headlines predicting a honeybee apocalypse, but that is a misunderstanding of the statistics, according to Utah Department of Agriculture and Food Information Officer Larry Lewis.

“One of the things that maybe we didn’t make clear to the media (is that) when you hear these numbers, it doesn’t mean every year there’s a die-off,” Lewis said. “It means beekeepers have had to spend their money to repopulate. Beekeepers have had to absorb the cost of repopulating to make up for those losses.”

Utah’s honey production is relatively small, valued at about $2 million per year for beekeepers, from nearly 30,000 reported colonies, according to the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food.

The honeybee industry exerts a much larger impact on agriculture, with pollination activities helping produce about 30 percent of our food supply. Utah’s agriculture industry, including production and processing, is valued at more than $17.5 billion.

The Utah State Department of Agriculture and Food appreciates the work of county bee inspectors like Shue, and recognizes that local action is the most effective means of improving the situation for pollinators across the entire state, State Apiary Inspector Stephen Stanko said.

Planting habitat for pollinators and following the directions when applying any sort of pesticide are the two most important contributions community members can make to improving the health of pollinators, he said. Beekeepers can register their hives and participate actively in the local beekeeping community, he added.

“Spread the word; talk to people,” Stanko said. “Make it a topic of conversation so more people are aware. It’s a very solvable problem.”

Bees are livestock. If you think about it from that perspective, you’re constantly trying to improve the genetics of your livestock.

Local apiarists and community partner for pollinators